Practicing your answers to common interview questions is one of the best ways to prepare for an interview, but its also important to be prepared for how to respond to an interview question that you dont know how to answer.
This may sound like an oxymoron, but the fact is that you will almost always encounter a question you werent prepared for in an interview. If you know what to do when this happens, youll be able to get through it with grace and still come across as someone worth employing.
To help you do this, we have some advice for what to do in this situation, as well as some example answers and what not to do when you dont know the answer to a question.
5 Tips for What to Do When You Dont Know How to Answer an Interview Question
Here are some tips on how to respond when you dont know how to answer a question youre asked in an interview.
Take a Deep Breath and Dont Panic
Many interviewers ask tough questions not to see if you know the answer, but to see how you react under pressure. How you respond to an interview question that completely stumps you is much more important than being able to give an answer, so youre going to want to avoid freaking out at all costs.
When youre faced with a question that you just dont know how to answer, try to maintain a calm posture and take a deep breath. Staying confident will show interviewers that you can compose yourself, while completely falling apart and getting worked up will make them lose faith in you.
Try saying something along the lines of, Thats an interesting question, could I take some time to think it over and get back to you? or Thats a great question, I could give you a partial answer, but I would like to consider it further and get back to you with a full answer.
Not having an answer isnt the end of the world, but totally losing your cool and having a meltdown will most likely be the end of your candidacy for the job.
Take Your Time Coming Up With an Answer
When youre asked a tough interview question that you cant answer right away, dont just try to come up with an answer all willy-nilly. Thats a recipe for disaster. Instead, acknowledge the question and that youre thinking about it.
Hm, thats a good question. Let me think about it,
You can also give yourself some more time to answer by rephrasing the question or asking for some clarification. Plus, by the time the interviewer responds to you, you have already come up with an answer!
Would you like for me to give you an example of how I completed a difficult project on a very tight deadline?
These approaches will buy you enough time to actually work through your thoughts and come up with a solid answer, instead of just spurting out whatever comes to your head first. Its better to give a thoughtful answer than to say something that will show the interviewer that youre stumped.
Think Out Loud
Sometimes interviewers ask tough questions to get an idea of how you work through problems. After youve taken some time to think through the question, explain your thought process to the interviewer and go from there.
For instance, if youre asked about any processes you have to complete projects, but you dont have an actual process, think through how you would approach the project and the steps that you would take to complete it.
Thinking out loud about a tough interview question is a great way to keep the conversation going and to avoid any awkward silences, plus it serves as a means to show interviewers how you think and work through unexpected obstacles without losing your cool.
Redirect the Conversation to a Topic Youre Confident With
If youre asked a tough question that you just dont have the answer to, you can always just own up to your lack of expertise and redirect the conversation to a skill or topic that you feel more comfortable talking about. Even if you cant answer a specific question, it doesnt hurt to change the topic to something relevant that you have more experience with.
For example, if youre asked about your experience with a specific skill that you dont have yet, you could try instead to redirect the question to another relevant skill that you do have experience with.
While I dont yet have much experience with social media marketing, I do have a lot of experience with copywriting, and I am up to date on current SEO practices.
You can also use this as an opportunity to show your excitement for the opportunity to learn a new skill in the position:
One of the things that caught my eye about this position was the opportunity to learn about social media marketing and build my skill set in that area. Because of my affinity with writing and SEO practices, I think that Im well equipped to take marketing head-on and grow with your company.
Answer the Question When You Follow Up With the Interviewer
When youre faced with a technical question that you just cant seem to come up with an answer for, theres no harm in offering to answer that question later on when you reach out to the interviewer with your follow-up email.
Thats a great question, and Im not sure I have the answer to that right now, but its something Im interested in learning more about. Would it be alright if I looked up the answer and sent it to you after the meeting?
Interviewers dont expect you to have all of the answers to every single tough question, but showing them that youre persistent and resourceful will stand out and impress them more than your being able to answer a difficult interview question on the spot.
What Not to Do When You Dont Know How to Answer an Interview Question
When a recruiter or hiring manager asks you a question you dont know how to answer, follow one or more of the five tips listed above. Also, make extra sure that you dont make any of these common mistakes when youre stumped:
Dont lie. You might be tempted to just wing an answer and hope for the best. As the saying goes: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
If youre making stuff up about technical skills or qualifications, youll probably reveal your weaknesses by giving an incomplete or incorrect answer. If youre lying about your experience with certain processes, youll be caught pretty quickly if youre lucky enough to get hired.
- Dont be afraid of a little silence. Interviews are nerve-wracking, and a moment of radio silence can feel like the most awkward thing in your life. But its really not taking time to consider your answer shows that youre thoughtful and deliberate with how you work through a problem, and those are not bad traits.
- Dont be visibly uncomfortable. Fidgeting, breaking eye contact, or just inserting a lot of ums or likes into your answer will not present well. At worst the hiring manager may doubt your ability to handle any level of stress, and at best youll appear less professional than youd like.
- Dont flat out admit ignorance. Honesty is great and all, but you should temper that with a bit of tact and common sense. Simply saying I dont know is never a good look in an interview, so try the strategies we discussed above instead.
Dont hesitate to ask for clarification. Sometimes you may not know how to answer an interview question because you arent quite sure what the interviewer is asking.
In this case, ask for clarification either by repeating the question back to them in your own words or by saying something like, Thats a great question. To help me better understand what youre looking for, do you mind unpacking that a little more?
How do you respond when you dont know the answer to an interview question?
You respond by asking for clarification or explaining how youd find out the answer when you dont know the answer to an interview question. Asking for clarification to the question buys you time to think about it and helps you ensure youre understanding the question correctly.
There are other ways to give yourself time to think as well, including saying something like, Thats a great question, Im going to need just a second to think about that, or simply repeating the question back to the interviewer.
If you just dont know the answer to the question, you can say that, but then follow up by explaining how youd approach the problem or how youd find out the information if you were in that situation.
You can also explain that you would love to learn more about that topic and then redirect the conversation back to something you are confident in.
Is it okay to say I dont know in an interview?
Yes, it is okay to say I dont know in an interview. However, you shouldnt leave it at that. Explain how youd go about approaching the problem or finding the answer, or offer to find the answer and send it to them after the interview.
This shows the interviewer that you are a problem-solver and are interested in growing as a professional. If you just say, I dont know, they will get the impression that you not only arent fully qualified for the job but that you wont work to learn and solve problems on your own either.
How do you say I dont know professionally?
You can say I dont know professionally by saying, Thats a great question, but I dont know that I have the answer to that right now. Can I look it up and let you know the answer after we finish here?
You can also say something like, I dont have much experience in that area, but I am interested in learning about it and have already signed up for some online courses. Being honest about what you do and dont know is important, but always pair it with an explanation of what youre going to do or are doing to find out the answer.
This shows that you will take initiative to learn new skills and find the answers to things you dont already know, which is a valuable trait to have in an employee.
Even though it may seem like a total nightmare, not being able to come up with an answer on the spot for a tough interview question isnt a death sentence for your job prospects.
Make sure to study up on the most common interview questions and prepare your answers beforehand. If you still run into a question that you just dont know how to answer, stay calm, take your time answering, and if you have to, just give your answer later on in your follow-up email.
Interviewers are more interested to see how you handle challenges and work through tough problems than knowing that you have all of the right answers. So just stay confident, dont panic, and all the right answers will come.
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